A Hero, A Witch?, and a Saint!
Every good war story has a hero. The American Revolution had George Washington, the Greco-Persian War had Leonidas, and the Hundred Years War, fought between the English and the French in the 14th and 15th centuries, had Joan of Arc.
The story of Joan of Arc is one that has been told countless times. It’s been portrayed in plays, books, movies, and TV shows. For good reason, too! The daughter of a peasant, she earned a prominent position in the French army and played a key role in resisting English attempts to invade and conquer French lands.
How’s that for a juicy war drama!?
Her story, however, is better understood as a symbol. It’s a symbol of the early rise of nationalism, the role of religion and the Church in society, as well as the inequalities women faced in the Middle Ages.
Setting the Stage: The Hundred Years War
From 1337 – 1453 AD, France and England could not stop fighting one another. To make things easier, historians grouped all this conflict together and have named it the Hundred Years’ War.
What was so important that caused the two kingdoms to fight a century-long war? Land, power, status, money. You know, the usual suspects.
The root of the conflict was in the ties between the English crown and the French nobility. Thanks to the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century, the King of England was also the Duke of Normandy. Located in the north of France, Normandy was a powerful duchy (region) that was often at odds with the King of France.
This is because the Duke of Normandy was also a king. He wasn’t a fan of bowing to some other king. Most kings don’t take too kindly to having a boss.
This, plus a complex web of familial relations that blurred the lines between France and England, caused the two to fight. The English kings often were the ones starting it. They wanted to control France, so they raised armies to take it.
The Final Phase of the War
The conflict was a massive seesaw affair.
In the early stages of the war, it looked like the English might win. Then they were driven back across the English channel. The French followed but they got beaten, which opened the door for another English attack at the beginning of the 15th century.
This time, it really looked like the English might win. Starting in 1420 AD, they raced across northern France and took control over a number of important cities, such as Agincourt, Senlis, and Meaux. These were very close to the French capital of Paris. The French royalty was getting nervous.
Taking these cities also blocked the path from Paris to Reims, the city where the French coronation took place. This prevented Charles VII, the “true king of France” (as in the actual French one) from officially taking power.
Things were looking pretty bleak for the French.
The Siege of Orleans
Orleans lies to the southwest of Paris and was a strategically important city during the Hundred Years’ War. The English wanted to take it to cut off Paris. They also wanted to rob the French of a crucial territory and source of power.
So, in 1428 AD, on the heels of their successes in France, they marched to Orleans and laid siege to it. Sieging is the process of capturing a well-defended city in which you cut off supply roots and basically wait out the defenders. Starvation would eventually force them to surrender.
It’s brutal business, but it’s the only way to take a city.
The Siege of Orleans began in the fall of 1428 AD and continued into 1429 AD. Things were not looking good for Charles VII and his supporters. The English were on the brink of victory.
Then, something incredible happened.
A Peasant Girl Sent from God
Joan of Arc, which comes from her French name Joan d’Arc, was a woman born to a peasant family from northeastern France. She was a devout supporter of Charles VII and believed very strongly he should be the next king of France.
She wanted very much to fight for him, but she had just one problem: she was a woman.
In the Middle Ages, and really until very recently, women were not allowed to fight in battle, much less do anything else.
While most people would have given up at this point, Joan had something else going for her: she had been sent from God.
Or at least that’s what she believed.
In 1428 AD, she traveled to the French town of Chinon to request an audience with King Charles VII. To get it, she had to dress in men’s clothes. She was granted this audience and when she got there, the king was disguised as a servant and standing amongst the crowd. This was a common practice to help keep kings safe.
Joan was not fooled. She recognized him straight away and spoke directly to him. She explained how she had been visited by the archangel Michael, who informed her it was her duty to defend France, break the siege of Orleans, and restore Charles VII to the throne.
Initially skeptical, Charles VII consulted his advisors and even sent Joan to Poitiers. This was an important French city where the local bishop lived. There, she met with renowned theologians (important church people).
They questioned her and eventually found her visions to be valid, issuing a formal recommendation to Charles VII that she could be trusted.
Using this information, Charles VII gave Joan a small army and tasked her with breaking the siege. French forces engaged the surrounding English troops on the western edges of the city. This distracted them enough to give Joan and her troops the time and space they needed to enter the city from the east and deliver much needed supplies and reinforcements.
This then opened the door for a French counterattack. Completely taken by surprise, the English were beaten back within days of her arrival. The Siege of Orleans was over, and the English were on the run!
In a matter of a few short months, Joan went from being a nameless peasant to a French hero.
After her victory at Orleans, Joan of Arc was celebrated as a hero sent from God. She boosted morale in the French armies, and participated in several more French victories throughout 1429 AD.
Eventually, the path to Reims was cleared, and Joan marched alongside Charles VII to the site of his coronation. This was an incredible honor that speaks to her position in French society.
Considering she was a woman, this recognition is even more impressive. Men at the time were not known for being open minded.
As the French consolidated their forces and continued to drive the English out, several towns and cities did not submit.
Joan was sent to Compiègne to face off against the rebellious Duke of Burgundy, but she was captured and handed over to the English.
Her luck had run out and her run of success ended. A real bummer. But her efforts had changed the course of the war for good and made French victory possible.
The English were not happy with Joan of Arc. She had beaten them in several major battles and ended their hopes of conquering France.
She was also a woman, and this just made all the men that much angrier.
As sore losers do, they sought revenge now that she was their prisoner. They immediately put Joan on trial for heresy, aka saying bad things about the Church.
She was accused of blasphemy, saying bad things about God.
They doubted her conversations with the angel Michael and God, saying they were lies used for personal gain. But they also didn’t like her “cross dressing,” which they thought was an insult to the entire religion.
They didn’t like that she wore soldiers clothes, even though she was a soldier…duh!
These were considered “men’s clothes” and so this was apparently a crime.
In the end, she was convicted of heresy, deemed a witch, and burned at the stake by English bishops.
Talk about an ugly ending.
But that was the Medieval Church, and that was religion in the Middle Ages. It was all about who was telling the story.
When she was free and working for the French, she was a miracle sent from God to win the war. The people bought into this, and the French were victorious.
Once captured, she was an enemy of the state. Kings and nobles could then use the Church, which worked closely with the monarchy to maintain power, to deem her a villain and remove her as a problem.
The Catholic Church admitted before the end of the 15th century that this was a mistake and she was in fact not a witch.
Fast forward a few hundred years and Joan of Arc is looked at much differently. In 1920, she was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, which means they made her a saint. This is one of the highest honors one can get in the Church, and it’s reserved only for “true” Catholics who do something incredible.
In Joan’s case, she was able to speak directly to God and carried out his will on the battlefield.
Two years later, in 1922, she was named as a patron saint of France, formally turning her into one of the nation’s most important heroes.
Joan of Arc: A Symbol of the Middle Ages
The story of Joan of Arc carries some important themes about the Middle Ages.
For one, it speaks to the importance of religion. Charles VII listened to her really only because she claimed to have spoken to God, and because he believed this might actually be a thing.
Without the strong role of Catholicism in Medieval society, it’s hard to see this having much of an impact at all.
Her death was also the result of Catholicism’s influence on society. Enraged by her successes, the English used religious justifications to burn her at the stake, when really they were just sore losers.
Beyond religion, Joan of Arc was a symbol for gender inequality. She had to dress in men’s clothes just to be heard by the king, and her logical decision to wear soldiers’ clothes traditionally reserved for men led to her death.
Today, Joan’s defiance of Medieval gender norms has made her a symbol of feminism and gender equality.
We also can’t forget Joan’s role in crafting the national narrative of France.
At the time, France looked nothing like it did today. But the monarchy was more powerful than ever, and thanks to the Hundred Years War, had a standing army and was free of the English.
As time wore on, French leaders would look back at Joan of Arc and use her as inspiration and to spark belief in the idea of a unified French culture and land.
Nationalism was dominant in the 1920s, the time of her canonization. But its roots can be traced back to the era in which Joan fought.
For this reason, the story and legend of Joan of Arc has endured until this day. And as long as there’s a nation of France, expect Joan of Arc to be one of its most beloved heroes.
Written by Matthew Jones